By James Pinkerton and St. John Barned-Smith, Houston Chronicle ~ Feb. 22, 2017
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has ended a controversial partnership with federal immigration authorities that trained a team of county deputies to determine the immigration status of jailed suspects and hold those selected for deportation.
Gonzalez, a Democrat who took office in January, said he will re-assign 10 county deputies trained under a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement program known as 287(g) that cost at least $675,000 in salaries and deploy them to other law enforcement duties.
The withdrawal of the sheriff's deputies will still allow ICE officials to come to the jail and screen jail inmates to determine their immigration status and the county will hold them for deportation if requested, Gonzalez said.
The sheriff said serious overcrowding in the county jail complex, where staff shortages have hiked overtime costs to $1 million every two weeks, has forced him to deploy his ICE-trained deputies elsewhere. He said his decision was not political "but an issue of resources," explaining the deputies may also be assigned to help improve clearance rates of major crimes or ad to the patrol division.
"After thoughtful consideration, I've decided to opt out of the voluntary 287(g) program," said Gonzalez, who sent ICE officials notification of his decision Tuesday. "We'll still be cooperating with local, state and federal authorities as we always have, we just won't have our manpower resources inside the jail doing that."
In addition to the annual cost-savings, he said, "We'll be able to release that personal to offset some of our overtime costs inside the jail and local public safety priorities we have."
Gonzalez's decision to re-evaluate the county's participation in 287(g), which he pledged during his candidacy last year, comes as President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown focuses on stronger interior enforcement and expansion of programs such as the one in the Harris County jail.
And Harris County's withdrawal comes as a number of sheriff's in neighboring counties have said they will apply to the ICE 287(g) program, which pays to train deputies to access an ICE databank along with screening persons brought to their jails for immigration status.
The ICE program, authorized by a 1996 immigration law, has seen limited use nationwide, but was employed by former Sheriff Adrian Garcia and continued by Sheriff Ron Hickman.
The ICE website on Tuesday listed 38 partnerships with local or county agencies in several states, and Texas had only four, including Harris County.
The move could put Harris County in the crosshairs of Gov. Greg Abbott and local GOP senators, who are working to pass a "sanctuary city" law that would withhold funding from law agencies that do not cooperate with federal requests to hold inmates. The term sanctuary city has been used to decry certain government agencies' refusal to cooperate with federal immigrant detentions.
Gonzalez, however, said Harris County will hold anyone at ICE's request no matter what criminal charge the inmate may be facing.
The jail will hold the inmate until ICE agents can take custody and move them to a federal detention facility, which Gonzalez said in the past has been done very quickly.
"It's my understanding that I need to comply with the law," Gonzalez said. "If ICE makes a determination there is someone they have identified and they make a request (for detention), then I plan to honor that request."